Posts Tagged ‘Slaughterhouse 5’

The Young Turks on Republican Willingness to Kill Families of Terrorists

December 23, 2015

This is another fascinating piece from The Young Turks showing the brutality and thuggishness in the Republican candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. I’ve already put up a piece by the Turks on the Gallup poll that shows fewer Muslims in Muslim majority countries support the killing of civilians – 14% – than in Britain and America – 33% and 50% respectively. This section of the debate amongst the Republican candidates shows just how far we in the West are losing the moral high ground.

The Turks on commenting on the candidates’ answer to a question whether they would support the deliberate killing of the families of terrorists. If they did, would this not violate the international treaty demanding that civilians should not be targeted in war. Rather than take a decent, moral position that they would not target the terrorists’ families, Trump, Carson and Cruz nearly fall over each other stressing their willingness to murder non-combatants. Trump starts ranting about how we need to be ‘firm’ with them, and makes entirely spurious comments about how the mother of two Islamist killers in San Bernardino must have known what they were doing. Carson seems to believe killing civilians is a necessary evil, and compares it to removing a tumour from a child’s brain. At first the child is resentful about having his head opened up, but afterwards they’re grateful. And Cruz doesn’t seem to know the difference between targeted bombing and carpet bombing. Here’s the clip:

Now the Turks are exactly right when they state that this is the mentality of the mob, and Islamist butchers like al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. They are also right when they state that it contradicts the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. They are absolutely right. Apart from the teachings of Christ, St. Paul himself states in his letters that Christians are not supposed to compete in evil with the wicked. So we are definitely not supposed to sink to their level. It was medieval theologians in the Roman Catholic West who formulated the modern rule of justice that the families of criminals should not be punished for the crimes of their relatives if the other family members themselves were innocent. The rule of collective guilt, that the families of criminals should be punished along with the criminals themselves, was revived by the non- and actively anti-Christian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Hitler revived it on the grounds that it supposedly came from ancient Germanic law. And Stalin revived it because he was an amoral thug and butcher. In his case, it supposedly comes from the tribal and clan warfare practised in the Caucasus. Either way, it’s a step backwards. Trump, Carson and Cruz’s support for lumping the families of terrorists in with them put them on exactly the same level as the North Korean regime and its persecution of Christians. Under the latest Kim, not only are Christians themselves arrested and executed in North Korea, but also their parents and grandparents, even if they’re atheists. Trump, Carson and Cruz have got the same vicious totalitarian mindset.

As for the willingness to prosecute war ruthlessly, without concern over civilians deaths being somehow Churchillian, this neglects how controversial Britain’s carpet bombing of Germany is, particularly in the case of Dresden. Dresden was hit so hard that the whole city was just about razed in the fireball. Many of the victims died without a mark on their bodies, suffocated because the fireball consumed all the breathable oxygen. Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical writer, was so profoundly affected by his experience of it as a prisoner of war near the city at the time, that it coloured his entire worldview, inspiring such novels as Slaughterhouse 5. The novel’s title is a reference to the abbatoir in which he and the other American POWs were incarcerated. Ironically, it was this that saved them.

The bombing of Dresden has become a stain on the Alllied conduct of the War. And while modern Germans are pleased that Hitler and the Nazis defeated, and their country liberated to become one of the most prosperous and democratic in Europe, they aren’t pleased about the destruction of Dresden. Far from it. One German playwright in the 1960s wrote a play about it, arguing that it showed Churchill as a war criminal, because Dresden at the time was not a centre of military operations. The bombing took place apparently purely as an act of terror.

There was intense controversy under John Major’s government back in the 1990s when the Tories decided to put up a statue commemorating ‘Bomber’ Harris, the head of the British airforce, who launched the carpet bombing of Germany. Many liberals in Britain felt it was entirely inappropriate to celebrate a man, who had deliberately caused so many civilian deaths. And the carpet bombing of Germany, the deliberate bombing of civilian areas, was controversial at the time. One Anglican churchman, a bishop, if I recall properly, resigned in protest. It’s probably this action by a man of faith and conscience that provided the inspiration for a Christian priest in the 1980s Dr Who serial, ‘The Curse of Fenric’. Played by the veteran actor and panel show host, Nicholas Parsons, the priest is a man, who has lost his faith thanks to his nation deciding to kill civilians in bombing raids. It clearly seems to have been inspired by the example of the real clergyman.

Interestingly, this churchman remains an inspirational figure to at least one, highly independent member of the British Christian Right: Peter Hitchens. Hitchens has some bizarre and vile views. He believes – wrongly – that Britain shouldn’t have entered the Second World War. But he is also an opponent of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. His reasoning here seems to be that these latter wars have sent good, brave men to die unnecessarily simply for the political advantage of the man he terms ‘the Blair creature’. So, contrary to Carson, Churchill’s bombing of civilians isn’t the action of a great war leader that Carson seems to think it is.

I differ with the Turks’ comments about the Repug candidates’ advocacy of killing terrorists’ families being part of the psyche of fundamentalist Christians. A little while ago a Jewish researcher published a book on theologically conservative Christians. He found that conservative religious views did not necessarily coincide with Conservative political views. In fact, he found that about half of Evangelical Christians were politically liberal, and tended to be more so than American Roman Catholics. See the book The Truth about Evangelical Christians. The Turks themselves have also noted that in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, people who make their religion the centre of their life, whether Christians, Muslims or whatever, tend to be far less in favour of attacking civilians. In the case of America, the willingness to kill civilians as well as terrorists seems to be due to other, shared cultural factors common to both people of faith and secular people.

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Grove, Blackadder and Comedy and Satire in the Great War

November 10, 2014

The idea that we were brought up on, that Europe is the home of civilization in general – nonsense! It’s a periodical slaughter-pen, with all the vices this implies. I’d as lief live in the Chicago stockyards.

Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to Great Britain, quoted in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 258.

The Knee

A knee is roaming, through the world,
No more; it’s just a knee.
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
It is a knee; no more.

There was a man once in a war
Got killed and killed and killed.
Alone, unhurt, remained the knee
Like a saint’s relics, pure.

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely;
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Christian Morgenstern, op. cit, 218.

Last week I posted a piece on the article on Mike’s site, Vox Political, reporting that Ben Elton was writing a satire based on Michael Gove’s denunciation of the last series of Blackadder. Way back at the beginning of this year, Gove had attacked Blackadder Goes Forth for what he considered to be its unpatriotic portrayal of the soldiers, who fought in World War 1. He criticised the series’ left-wing bias, and declared that it insulted the memory of those who fought and died in the mud and horror of Flanders by portraying them as cowards. To support his view, he then cited a number of history books presenting the alternative view of the War, which had his approval. Gove’s opinions aren’t simply those of a Tory politician, impatient and intolerant with any view that dares to contradict their own. His views were also based on by a number of historical studies of the Great War, that have attempted to overturn the traditional view that it was a bloody, brutal debacle, in which millions of men were sent to their deaths by out-of-touch and incompetent generals. These historians have argued instead that officers and the men, who served under them, got on well and that accounts of the class friction between them have been exaggerated. They concede that there were severe mistakes made during the first part of the War, but that the conduct of the War improved greatly from 1917 onwards, so that phase of the War was actually well fought with a high standard of leadership. A friend of mine a few years ago attended a military history symposium to mark the War. One of the speakers there presented a paper arguing that General Haig was actually a good general, or at least, not as incompetent as previously believed. My friend remained unconvinced.

Gove Missing Point of Blackadder Comedy

Along with Mike and many other bloggers, I also put up a few pieces on this blog arguing that Gove was wrong. At one level, Gove simply missed the point. Blackadder Goes Forth was a comedy, not a work of serious drama or historical investigation. Comedies entertain by poking fun. Their subjects and targets are the vain, the stupid, the pompous, the greedy, and the inept. The character of Blackadder throughout his four series and incarnations is that of a picaresque anti-hero. He is cynical, devious, and callous and manipulative towards his friends, particularly Baldric, but saved because of his cynical comments on the folly, greed or savagery of his social superiors. The audience likes him, without actually approving of his corruption and lack of morals.

And whatever the reality of the War, it left many across Europe feeling betrayed by a political and economic system that given rise to such colossal, horrific carnage. This bitterness and horror was portrayed in verse by poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It also inspired satirists and comic writers and artists across Europe to add their comments to the horror and absurdity of the situation.

Grimmelshausen’s Comedies of 17th Century German War

Writers have written comedies and comic novels about wars and their combatants since Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen wrote his Simplicissimus Deutsch in the 17th century. This narrated the strange adventures of a group of na├»ve innocents, who managed somehow to blunder their way through the Thirty Years’ War. This was the continent-wide war between Roman Catholics and Protestants during which a fifth of the population of the German Empire died from starvation. Apart from being a classic in its own right, Grimmelshausen’s work has also been important in 20th century literature. It was on Grimmelshausen’s Description of the Life of the Archdeceiver and Vagrant Courasche that Bertolt Brecht based his play, Mother Courage. The cartoons and satires on the War could range from the gentle and mild, to the bitter and savage. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) cartoon ‘It’s the Little Things that Worry’, with its caption from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “It is an ancient campaigner and he stoppeth one of three’, below, shows a serviceman, ‘Old Bill’, trying to hunt down the fleas that pester them in the dugouts.

First War Cartoon

Black Comedy of Christian Morgenstern

Others were far more vicious. The German poet, Christian Morgenstern, was also inspired to write poetry by his experiences in the First World War. His poems are black comedies, which express his sense of how absurdly humorous the killing and death around him was. Morgenstern himself described how he and a friend were on patrol through no-man’s land when a shell exploded nearby. His friend was killed instantly, literally torn apart from the blast, and his head and entrails thrown into a nearby tree. Morgenstern said that far from being terrified, or repulsed by the grotesque sight, he actually found it funny. This is truly black humour, far darker than anything Elton showed in Blackadder.

The Wipers Times

Although Blackadder Goes Forth was fiction, written nearly seven decades after the events it describes, it does accurately reflect the type of humour and the views of the servicemen themselves, who did fight in the War. A few years ago Private Eye’s Ian Hislop presented a programme, with an accompanying book, on the Wipers Times. This was a newspaper written by and for the troops. Hislop commented on how savagely funny and dark the Times’s humour was, stating that it was exactly like Blackadder. I’ve got a feeling it was also viewed suspiciously by the authorities, like Ben Elton’s comic creation and his view of the War.

The Good Soldier Svejk

One of the greatest satirical works of the Great War was Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Hasek was a Czech, and the book satirises the absurdity and incompetence of the War and the multinational army of the Habsburg Empire, of which the Czech republic, then Bohemia, was a part. Hasek portrays the German-speaking generals in charge of the Austro-Hungarian forces as brutal and callous. Svejk’s own motives and character are also ambiguous. He’s incompetent, but staunchly loyal to the empire. It’s unclear whether Svejk is feigning stupidity in order to divert attention from his attempts to get out of the War, or whether he is actually that stupid. The Good Soldier Svejk has become a classic of Czech literature, and been translated into a number of languages, including English. It has been filmed several times, including in German, and a few decades ago Radio 4 broadcast a play based on the book.

Post-WW II Satires on War

Satirical treatment of wars and their brutal, terrifying absurdity, did not stop with the First World War, of course. Joseph Heller famously based Catch-22 on the Korean War. The Second World War and its horrors were the subject of a number of satires in its turn. Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett satirised the war films of the period in their show, Beyond the Fringe, which launched their careers as satirists and performers. The War also inspired and influenced the SF writers Kurt Vonnegut and Harry Harrison. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was partly based on his experiences as a POW during the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut and the other captured American soldiers with him only managed to survive the bombing as they had been imprisoned in an abattoir called Slaughterhouse 5. If nothing else, it shows that the Fates have a very dark sense of humour. Harry Harrison has also served in the Second World War. He began his career as a writer through the education courses the American army laid on in order to prepare their squaddies for civilian life. His experiences of the army and war clearly influence his book, Bill the Galactic Hero. This tells the story of a recruit to the human forces waging a galaxy-wide war against a race of alien lizards. Far from being the murderous savages of propaganda, the aliens are actually highly cultured and civilised. It is the humans, who are the aggressors. His view of the absurdity of war is shown in incidents, such as one in which Bill has an arm blown off during a space battle. He receives a replacement, which to his horror is that of his Black best friend. Furthermore, it’s another left arm, like his remaining limb, as there’s a shortage of right arms. The book also contains Harrison’s comment on the violence and belligerence in human nature. When asked by an alien opponent why humans are always fighting war, Bill replies ‘I think we just enjoy it’. Bill is also given advice on surviving as a soldier by Cain, the first murderer, here presented as the first soldier.

George Grosz

Some of the most viciously satirical cartoons depicting post-War life were those of George Grosz in Germany. Grosz had enlisted in the infantry when war broke out, but became bitterly disillusioned with the conflict and its carnage. He was hospitalised, and managed to hang on to his sanity by pouring out his rage and hatred into his drawings. He was determined to hit back at the ruling order responsible for the horror, travelling to the USSR after the War. He returned to Germany even more cynical and disgusted in 1922. His cartoons, which appeared in the brief satirical magazines, Die Pleite and Der Blutige Ernst (The Bloody Earnest) depicted a corrupt and decadent society, in which rich profiteers enjoyed vast luxury on the backs of an underclass, eking out a living in slums and flophouses. The cartoon below, ‘Des Volkes Dank ist Euch gewiss’ (The People’s Gratitude is certainly yours’ shows the rich passing a beggar and a maimed ex-serviceman, forced onto the streets.

Grosz Cartoon

War Comics Spoof and Maggie’s Cuts to the Armed Forces

In the cuts that followed the Falklands and Gulf Wars, thousands of soldiers were laid off. Many of these ex-servicemen, particularly those traumatised by their experiences of conflict, ended up homeless and on the streets. Spitting Image satirised this callous discarding of courageous soldiers, who had risked their lives for their country in a spoof comic strip in their send-up of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, Thatcha: The Real Maggie Memoirs. Drawn in the style of the British war comics of the 1970s, like Battle, the strip told the story of a British soldier coming back from the Falklands. Made redundant from the army, the former squaddie takes out his rage and frustration by gunning a crowd of innocent people waiting on a bus stop.

How Long till Scenes from Grosz in Cameron’s Britain?

The Tories have introduced a series of cuts in military expenditure, laying off thousands of professional soldiers while attempting fill the ranks with recruits from the Territorials. Despite the high profile and work of charities caring for ex-servicemen, such as Help for Heroes and the Invictus games this summer, I wonder how long it will be before we see scenes like the above drawing by Grosz in Britain, as the vicious and decadent British upper class profit from the misery and horror caused by the war in Iraq.